An overview of current liberal arts activities in Europe published on ELAI

A summary of notable developments in European liberal education in 2017, as well as some useful links to scheduled events in 2018, has just been published on ELAI website. This post gathers evidence of heightened interest in the topic, as seen in both meetings and publications, in many countries, by people of many roles and generations. To see that ELAI is just one of the many attempts to treat liberal arts education seriously on European scene is indeed heartwarming.

I am now entering the writing phase of my dissertation, and it is not yet clear what would this mean for my posts on this website. With ELAI in full swing, a thesis to write, and a connected (though still separate) project that has just begun, I will finally get really buys – a welcome change after the last few hectic months. This website has been mostly focused on information – I keep my records up to date and will continue to do so – but it remains to be seen if I would do good on testing ideas for my research on this forum. I hope I will, but there is only so much one can do in any day.


European Liberal Arts Initiative continues to grow

Three months have passed since together with Tim Hoff we have launched European Liberal Arts Initiative. The website serves many purposes. It started from an updated database of liberal arts programs in Europe that we have confirmed with the institutions involved, but over time grew to include resources, links, and news from all things liberal arts on the continent. While I hope our ambitious plans for the Initiative would materialize in the coming months, there are already signs that there might be some interest around those issues, for example 3000 page views in the first three months. In early November in Aarhus me, Tim Hoff and Teun Dekker hosted a symposium on the role of liberal arts for refreshing the purpose of the future university – the presentations have been recorded and are now on Youtube. Finally, ELAI now has a logo that reflects some of the values we would like to see more prominently featured in discussions of liberal arts in Europe.

The book project on student experience of liberal education in Europe has also been parked on ELAI website to create some healthy synergies. Paper copies are sold during conferences (few dozens found their readers through this channel), but the electronic version is accessible on the ELAI website, with over 650 unique visitors during the first month only.

My PhD has meanwhile moved into the final year, which means both stress and enjoyment of actually putting my thoughts together and writing up a cohesive, dissertation long argument stemming from what I learned from the first leaders in European liberal arts. There are clear limitations to my approach, and I have already been forced to send more and more ideas to the post-PhD folder. Nevertheless, I am very excited about the write up phase. Since all the other projects are now done, postponed or declined, I am having the free space for doing just one thing for the next half a year at least – and it feels wonderful.

Liberal education in Europe: book on student experience published

The book I co-edited with Jakob Tonda Dirksen and David Kretz has finally been published. First conceived after 1st LESC conference in Luneburg in 2016, the idea was to highlight student voices in debate on liberal arts education in Europe. The project was ambitious, as it aimed to achieve the quality similar to peer-reviewed academic publications without too narrow a focus that normally scares off most of the potential audience. Academic articles coming out from LESC have by the way been published in a special issue of a renowned journal Educational Philosophy and Theory. In the book, we were looking for original, short contributions discussing how students experienced their education, how do they reflect on it today, and what thoughts do they have on the state of liberal arts in Europe. To the best on my knowledge, no similar publication exists, certainly in Europe.

The book cover – click to read

Closing a year-long project, I am particularly glad we maintained our focus on diverse, yet carefully expressed perspectives from across the continent. To keep the book accessible, we chose to self-publish (and clearly learned a lot in the process), and put the pdf online (over 500 downloads in the first week). European Liberal Arts Initiative, which I co-founded with Tim Hoff, is hosting the online version of the book. We have also made 1000 paper copies, courtesy of our sponsor colleges, that would be distributed to liberal arts programs in Europe and few interested parties elsewhere – while a small contingent would remain available to buy for a symbolic unit price. The book has been officially launched during BLASTER concluding event again in Luneburg on September 28, where a student panel was convened to discuss similar topics [notes available here].

What next?

Since the book is done, academic articles and blog posts are written, I am getting close to the time I would solely focus on (finally) writing my dissertation. But before that, in early November, I would host a panel during a conference “The Purpose of the Future University” (with Teun Dekker and Tim Hoff), focused the state, limitations and relevance of liberal education for Europe – that we intend to stream. And just after that, I would speak during History of Education Society anniversary conference in Winchester, where I would say a word or two about “Artes Liberales Association”, an Eastern European predecessor for more contemporary liberal arts initiatives that was active between 1996 and 2001. An article based on revised first chapter of my PhD would be proposed to “Theory and Method in Higher Education Research” series.

After years of promising myself to streamline things I work on, I think I might finally be getting there.

ELAI publishes an indicative list of research literature on European Liberal Arts

As part of collecting scholarship relevant for study of European Liberal Arts initiatives, me and Tim Hoff have recently published a preliminary collection of most relevant books, special issues, articles and chapters. We have deliberately limited this list to pieces directly relevant to liberal arts scene in contemporary (post-1989) Europe, excluding for example US and historical literature, and tried to strike a good balance between relevance and comprehensiveness. The list would updated with new publications, and feel free to suggest ones that we have omitted.

ELAI goes live

European Liberal Arts Initiative (ELAI) website goes live today, as a result of collaborative work of Tim Hoff (Hamburg) and Daniel Kontowski (Winchester). The first task of the initiative is to create a public database of liberal arts programs in Europe: public and private, grassroots and connected to American institutions. ELAI database lists now 80 programs with various organizational, philosophical and pedagogical arrangements. Visit to learn more.

refugee paper published

The article on refugee support in higher education systems in Poland and Austria, that I coauthored with Madelaine Leitsberger, has been published (online first) in European Educational Research Journal as “Hospitable universities and integration of refugees: First responses from Austria and Poland”, DOI: 10.1177/1474904117719593. We discuss first responses (late 2015 and early 2016) in Poland and Austria, showing widespread support organised with little government support (or interruption), and we propose to view those through the lens of hospitality rather than human rights or economic advancement. What happened after May 2016 is, of course, a different story – especially with political U-turn in Poland. Still, as little has been said about our two countries, and immediacy and scale of those first were quite remarkable, there might be something to learn from their cases.

It can be accessed here.

The regional and the local

While I continue my work on the origins of liberal education in Europe, especially „Artes Liberales Association” that was active between 1996 and 2001 in Central and Eastern Europe, I am happy to report two things that might be of some interest.


First of all, Educational Philosophy and Theory has published some thought provoking articles on liberal arts in Europe. They merit particular attention because they are student contributions, which is heartening for both generational renewal of the movement towards more liberal education in the region, and because of the visibility such renowned platform might bring to it. Some of the articles are work originally prepared for 1st Liberal education student conference at Leuphana University Luneburg in 2016, though considerably improved by the authors and prof. Nigel Tubbs from University of Winchester and Jakob Dirksen. A lot of good work, so without further ado, those articles are (online first):

Bergland, B., 2017. The incompatibility of neoliberal university structures and interdisciplinary knowledge: A feminist slow scholarship critique. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1857(July), pp.1–6. Available at:

Claus, J., Meckel, T. & Pätz, F., 2017. The new spirit of capitalism in European Liberal Arts programs. Educational Philosophy and Theory, (June), pp.1–9. Available at:

Cooper, N., 2017. Evaluating the liberal arts model in the context of the Dutch University College. Educational Philosophy and Theory, (July), pp.1–8. Available at:

Haberberger, C., 2017. A return to understanding: Making liberal education valuable again. Educational Philosophy and Theory, (June), pp.1–8. Available at:

Lundbye Cone, L., 2017. Towards a university of Halbbildung : How the neoliberal mode of higher education governance in Europe is half-educating students for a misleading future. Educational Philosophy and Theory, (June), pp.1–11. Available at:

Smith, A.J., 2017. Economic precarity, modern liberal arts and creating a resilient graduate. Educational Philosophy and Theory, (June), pp.1–8. Available at:

Tidbury, I., 2017. Is twenty-first-century liberal arts modern? Educational Philosophy and Theory, (July), pp.1–7. Available at:



On another note, as the (another) reform of Polish higher education, with a fancy name “Bill 2.0”, is getting in its final stage, technical solutions become a spot of collective academic attention. If the overall aim is to increase the potential of Polish universities – or “catch up” with Europe and the US, and among the means to this aim are performance based funding based on outputs (publications and grants), it might not be a bad idea to make Polish audience aware of models already implemented. As “ministerial registries” of academic journals, with individually assigned points every year, haunt the imagination of Polish scientists, it might not be the optimal solution. “Nauka i Szkolnictwo Wyższe” (‘Science and Higher Education’) asked me to translate for the Polish audience an article by prof. Gunnar Sivertsen from NIFU who developed the so-called “Norwegian model”, which, though not ideal, is said not to discriminate against the humanities and social sciences, increases transparency and access to scientific outputs. I would like to thank Emanuel Kulczycki and Krystian Szadkowski for their comments and editorial work. The translation can be accessed here:

Sivertsen, G., 2017. Finansowanie oparte na publikacjach – Model norweski (tłum. D.Kontowski). Nauka i Szkolnictwo Wyższe, 1(49), pp.47–60.

Streamlining research on European liberal education

What am I working on right now?

  1. A study of the first leaders in contemporary European liberal education. Eight first leaders of surviving institutions, eight countries, eight long interviews conducted 2016-17, transcribed and currently coded and reflected upon. Preliminary results to be presented at ECER 2017 in Copenhagen and CHER 2017 in Jyvaskyla (both in late August). This would ultimately form the core of my dissertation to be defended in 2018.
  2. A conceptual analysis of research on contemporary liberal education in Europe. As a warm-up, I wrote an article pointing towards possible pathways of using discourse analysis to unbundle what people might mean when they speak of liberal education in contemporary Europe (Kontowski, D., 2017. Notes on liberal (arts) education discourse. Kultura – Społeczeństwo – Edukacja, 1(9) to be published shortly. But the proper piece is supposed to be published in 2018 (Kontowski, D., 2018. The concept of liberal education in Europe; two traditions and a way forward. In J. Huisman & M. Tight, eds. Theory and Method in Higher Education Research. Emerald Group Publishing Limited). The core argument as I see it now goes like this: historical-theoretical studies of liberal education dissect the diversity of the movement, but do not speak much of contemporary Europe; empirical-institutional studies focusing on liberal education in Europe operate on the unity/movement assumption, speaking of liberal education as a common trend as evidenced by using a common vocabulary; unless we find a way of merging insights of those two traditions, our understanding of contemporary European liberal education would remain superficial and uncritical; if we find a way of cross-pollinating their insights, we could better assess pluralism, common features, individual motivation and the system function of the phenomenon.
  3. A study of the first attempt to bring people interested in Europe together, “Artes Liberales” Association (1996-2001) that aimed at promotion of liberal education in Central and Eastern Europe and brought scholars and administrators from those countries into a dialogue with a number of US leaders in liberal education. The Association worked from the Educational Leadership Programme of Endeavour Foundation, and influenced a lot of thinking back then, but was unable to generate enough cooperation in the region and ultimately dissolved. The Association’s website has been taken down long ago, and apart from few bits of information scattered in newspapers and journals, not much is publicly available. But I was able to get access to the Association archives and interview people that played a role 20 years ago, therefore I am positive I will be able to learn from their experience – both conceptual differences in US/CEE understandings of liberal education, and bread and butter pains of international cooperation in the pre-Internet academia.
  4. Institutional diversity of liberal education programs and colleges in Europe. Hoping to bring a little order into a complex picture of European liberal education as presented by Godwin (2013) and van der Wende (2011), I have started working with Tim Hoff (a grad student at University of Hamburg) on the new database that is going to be publicly available, reliable and updated. First outcome is going to be published as a chapter in late 2017/early 2018 (Kontowski, D., 2017. Emerging alternative designs for higher education: Liberal arts initiatives in Europe. In S. Wright & R. W. B. Lund, eds. University Futures. Critical perspectives, alternative designs. Oxford: Berghahn Books), where I discuss in more details university colleges, liberal arts programs, liberal education in authoritarian countries and double-edged approach to liberal education in Winchester. In the chapter, I am interested to what extent this particular forms can bring much needed democratic revival to public universities. A version of this paper would be presented at Society for Values in Higher Education meeting in Boston, July 2017, and during EAIR conference in Porto in September 2017. The work on the database continues, with Tim presenting during our panel in Aarhus in November 2017 (conference The purpose of the future university).
  5. Student perspectives on their European liberal education. Together with David Michael Kretz and Jakob Dirksen we have edited a collection of 17 short narratives in which students discuss their experience of liberal education in Europe. Titled after the 1st Liberal Arts Student Conference in Luneburg in May 2016 (Dirksen, J.T.V., Kontowski, D. & Kretz, D. eds., 2017. What Is Liberal Education and What Could It Be? European Students On Their Liberal Arts Education), the collection is now looking for the best way to be published, which should generally happen over the summer.
  6. Small-scale curricular review of what is considered common core in liberal education programs and institutions in Europe. I am specifically interested in how many of them offer anything similar to Great Books or Core Texts as obligatory student experience. And if they don’t, what is considered obligatory instead? While this is certainly a topic for a detailed study, right now I want to scan through curricula of the programs in our database, count “classical” or “literary-heavy” approaches, and see whether some other elements (methodology? foreign language? big challenges?) aren’t by any chance more popular.
  7. Last but not least, the emerging interest of liberal arts vs. artes neoliberales. for quite some time I was baffled how the language of liberal education can be used for a competition-driven global knowledge economy agenda. If the way to defend and promote liberal education is through the usefulness – of critical thinking, adaptability, lifelong learning, problem solving, cultural awareness, effective communication etc. – then this marks for me a departure from at least the way liberal education was spoken about, if not essentially conceived. The pick and choose in the curriculum, creeping professionalism, internships and issues/innovation speak can very well attract students to liberal education programs for some new kind of reasons. As it has already been suggested in the literature that there was (in the 1990s, and still is) a demand for liberal education due to economic, political and social changes, I would like to investigate, hopefully through ethnography, how are institutions balancing the intrinsic ideal with instrumental reality of policy, parents and the job market. These negotiations do not have to follow any particular model, as we should remember how resilient academics can be in window-dressing the freedom based programs into vestiges of usefulness. While I will present the model for the study during the panel in Aarhus mentioned above in November, I would not expect the full study to be launched before 2018.

Getting the job done

Winter was time of delivering. I had to apply for more conferences and summer schools that I can readily count. But I also submit two grant proposals for work I could do starting in 2018. And on top of that, since last posting I moved apartments three times: hardly expected set of emergencies got in my way of doing the job properly. However, it seems now that I pretty much recovered and should soon get back on full steam.

In terms of my doctoral project, I executed last two interviews in January. With eight first leaders interviewed, I have now the empirical base for my comparison. I am very grateful to all professors involved: their generosity with time and attention has allowed the project to develop the way it was intended to from the start. I am now almost done with the transcriptions, and should have a draft of an empirical chapter ready by the time I leave New York in July. I also appreciate the fact that Dr Ulrike Ziemer from University of Winchester has agreed to offer her expertise as a third supervisor of my PhD.

Apart from a trip to Atlanta to meet with prof. Nikolay Kopossov and his wife prof. Dina Khapaeva, I attended AAC&U symposium in San Francisco in January. That allowed me to meet prof. Sheldon Rothblatt, who has obviously many things to say about what I do, including helpful criticism. I appreciate those talks, and I am grateful to prof. Anne MacLachlan for making the connection; hopefully, we would meet at CHER 2017 soon.

Along with the empirical part of my PhD, I am currently revising the theoretical chapter to submit to “Theory and Method in Higher Education Studies”. Or, I should rather say, I am writing anew a chapter, in a form of a journal article. It is probably going to be the most important piece I ever written, as I presents the rationale for what I do, both in terms of research gap and its significance. I want to make a case for combining empirical, comparative higher education studies done to date on the phenomenon of liberal arts global revival with the history of ideas approach that can be found in works on the tradition of liberal arts. Currently, it seems to me that both strands are barely connected, and the use of allegedly common concepts overshadows some fundamental differences in what is the purpose of liberal education, why is it offered, where and by whom. By the way, there is still no authoritative, complete and rigorous database/inventory of liberal education initiatives in Europe (Godwin 2013 was the most serious attempt in this direction, but has not been published nor updated, plus it omits some important programs); with Tim Hoff from University of Hamburg we are now trying to make the proper visual tool, and put up on an interactive website. Theoretical challenges considering the classification of those programs and their curricula are tremendous, but also fascinating.

As a follow-up to the UNIKE project, I have been co-thinking with prof. Davydd Greenwood and prof. Susan Wright about something that can be called neoliberal education. While there is indeed a growing number of liberal education programs worldwide, reasons for establishment and understanding of the ideal of liberal education vary. Some of them seem to be very close to creating easily adapting polymaths who would exercise entrepreneurial traits towards their curricula and careers, thus securing an edge in the knowledge economy as a new cosmopolitan elite. What has been written about Yale-NUS in Singapore suggest exactly this direction. While European programs do not yet seem to be getting to the point where you offer liberal education without mentioning critical thinking (see Chinese examples), overplaying of economic factors in some programs is evident. Given what historically has been considered the purpose of liberal education, and connotations it had even four decades ago in the US, such neoliberal arts as William Deresiewicz put it a fascinating from the point of both research and strategy for European liberal education. Maybe we should not be putting all developments in liberal education into one bag of “valuable innovation”. Or maybe we should. In any case, this topic warrants some more research: I applied for a scholarship to do this starting from 2018. Before that, I hope to scale up interest in European liberal education by a panel I proposed to Aarhus University conference on “The Purpose of the Future University” to be held in November. If accepted, I would be joined by first Professors of Liberal Arts and Sciences (and alumnus of first Dutch cohort of liberal education students) Teun Dekker from University College Maastricht, and Tim Hoff, at a liberal education panel there. This panel, quite fittingly, is actually called a symposium.

During those winter months, I also had to move the writing pipeline. An article on German Private Liberal Education, co-written with David Kretz, has been submit and already revised in last three months. Another article, this time a joint effort with Madelaine Leitsberger, dealing with the responses from university sector in Austria and Poland to the refugee crisis, is now in its third and hopefully final version to be published in European Educational Research Journal. Both are scheduled to be out in summer months.

Two articles in Polish have seen the light of day as well. The first one was written almost two years ago, and deals with the pedagogical credibility of liberal education narrative. Another, one that I really think can be of importance given the ongoing reform process of Polish higher education, is a Polish version of my MISH article – published in the best possible source in Poland, “Nauka i Szkolnictwo Wyższe” – a go-to source of higher education research in the country. Links to publications can be found on updated section of this website, whereas a descriptions of all research projects I am currently dealing with are on my ResearchGate profile.

The last thing that kept me busy was a collection of student essays on the experience of European Liberal Education. Jakob Tonda Dirksen and David M. Kretz are co-editing with me a this book that is going to be one of a kind. We have several good contributions, that underwent multiple editing rounds, to uncover a new ground in studying the topic. Reading students’ experiences is not only interesting in itself, but it also allows for a diversity of voices and accents, and what students (and alumni) focused on was largely different from what both institutions and researchers put into spotlight when talking of liberal education. We hope to have this published as an ebook before 2nd Liberal Education Student Conference to be held in early May in Freiburg.

So what now? My interviews have to be authorized and analyzed, “the paper” on theory of liberal education written, ebook finally put together and also I am looking forward to making a better use of my location at Wagner College and in New York City to conduct some more interviews. Let’s say this is the plan for April. It is going to get busy again.


What I am working on now

The best place to see research projects I am currently involved in is my ResearchGate profile. I am trying to post some updates, drafts and completed articles there. Compared to last year, my interest are now more streamlined, with the biggest chunks devoted to my dissertation. In the coming months, I will:

  • attempt to create an institutional comparison of liberal arts education programs in Europe,
  • transform my first chapter of my dissertation into a denser article on the concept of liberal education in Europe – suggesting that there is little consensus among people using the concept, and advocating for research that bridged philosophical literature and higher education studies of the topic;
  • transcribe the interviews with the first leaders of European liberal education programs and write up a comparative empirical piece looking for common threads and idiosyncrasies (aren’t all comparative pieces like it?). I hope that this might be my most important contribution, but it might take a while before it is ready.

Meanwhile, I have finally published some articles on liberal education in English. I described the first one (Kontowski, D. (2016) „The Paradox of “Practical Liberal Arts”. Lessons from the Wagner College Case for Liberal (Arts) Education in Eastern Europe”, Voprosy obrazovaniya / Educational Studies (Moscow), (3), ss. 80–109.) in more details in the first post from New York. Now I see it a little bit more clearly that what I experience at Wagner might fall into the category of “pragmatic consensus” (Bruce A. Kimball) within contemporary liberal education in the US. If so, my task for this year seems to find what is gained and what is lost in such approach, and how small institution like Wagner College might find itself more struggling to deliver on this than perhaps better endowed colleges.

Just yesterday, another article has been finally published:

Kontowski, D. (2016) ‘On the verge of liberal arts education: the case of MISH in Poland‘, Working Papers in Higher Education Studies, 2(1), pp. 58–94.

This is a work on MISH college at the University of Warsaw in Poland, the institution I graduated from and I owe much both educationally and as a person. I wrote it for three reasons. First of all, there are some things that were not set right in almost all the previous articles that mention MISH: as the institutional arrangement might seem opaque from the outside, I wanted to set the record straight. Secondly, I believe that the philosophy of liberal education, if this is not too big a word, that MISH operates under is a very peculiar one, and far reaching. Finally, MISH had some success in inspiring limited change in Poland and the region, but it did not receive in my opinion adequate attention. Most articles published on liberal education in Europe cover the Netherlands and recently the UK. I therefore invite you to the land between Germans and Russians, one that has its many gems and I believe MISH is one of them. Importantly, I think that MISH is in some ways done reforming higher education: it got mainstream, regulated, less audacious, and the role of educational laboratory has switched to Kolegium Artes Liberales UW. This article described the “older brother” of this institution, and the idea of the major figure behind both, professor Jerzy Axer who has retired this year. While I do not pretend to present any authorized reading of what he might or might not hoped to achieve through liberal education in Europe, I certainly believe that there is some food for thought in the pieces that I direct my attention to in my article. Personally, I believe that a grassroots way of describing the idea of liberal education in Europe that I attempted in this article might be the most promising avenue for further research on the topic.